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Posts Tagged Joel Sass

The World of Hamlet Made Concrete

The world of our Hamlet will seem modern without being specific to any one decade or national boundary. Our Denmark is a state of mind versus an actual Scandinavian country.

It’s a world of concrete, gold leaf and surveillance cameras; the main set element is literally a concrete cube tipped on edge–a brutal yet unsteady world. We’ll make use of video projection to both alter the landscape and take us to interior psychological landscapes of the characters. 

— Joel Sass in a note for the cast, which was attached to their rehearsal script

 * * *

While contemplating the set design for his new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Joel Sass considered ideas such as a complicated set of stairs (“It looked cool but more complicated than needed.”) but ultimately settled on a tipped concrete cube. That design got the best response out of all his concepts.

“I looked for the simplest shape that seemed most resonate of each scene and would need minimal manipulation by the stage crew,” Joel said. “The fun part for me is the challenge of balancing practicality and ideas. I understand the interdependence between budget and design.”

Joel did not want a set with “the trappings of an antique, historical diorama.” Instead he wanted a modern design that would better reflect a world of our time. To achieve his ends, he looked to Nordic Brutalist Architecture with its exposed concrete construction that creates an atmosphere or discomfort and uneasiness. It was meant to feel contemporary and monumental–far from “ye old timie.”

 

Brutalist architecture was popular in the 1950s and 1960s and often used to design government and institutional structures, such as university buildings (for instance, the Rarig Center at University of Minnesota’s West Bank). Swedish architect Hans Asplund coined the term “brutalism” to describe Villa Goth, a house that he’d designed in Kabo, Uppsala, Sweden in 1949. The term was then picked up by a group of visiting English architects, and Brutalism’s popularity in England rose as an inexpensive construction and design method for a country that had been ravaged by World War II.

Hamlet’s world is one filled with anxiety due to a violent disruption in leadership and uncertainty as to who holds power. His world sounds a lot like ours today. Will we someday also experience a resurgence in the popularity of Brutalist architecture?

  • * * *

(Note: All photos were taken by Amy Anderson)

Label Him Talented

 

Wes Mouri as Laertes
(Photo by Amy Anderson)

Wes Mouri, who currently plays Laertes in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Park Square Theatre, had a propitious start to his acting career. Soon after graduating from Bethel University with a B.A. in Theatre Arts, he landed a role in Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Bye Bye Birdie. This was a six-month commitment from October 2012 to March 2013 that required eight performances weekly of evening and matinee shows.

“I learned so much about myself,” Wes said. “It really hit home that this is a profession, not something that you just do for a couple of weekends. You have to be talented, but you also have to be invested in the work.”

Stephanie Bertumen as Mei-Li and Wesley Mouri as Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Since his professional debut at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, Wes has appeared in numerous musicals in the Twin Cities, including last season’s Flower Drum Song, co-produced by Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts. He was proud to be cast in the lead role of Wang Ta, noting, “How often does a mixed-race man get to play a romantic lead?”

However, Wes was beginning to get pidgeon-holed in singing and dancing parts when Director Joel Sass offered him the dramatic role of Laertes in Hamlet.

“Joel’s frustrated when people are put into boxes,” Wes said of the man who’d also created this new adaptation of Hamlet. “He recognizes that not seeing people for their full potential stagnates their career. Even though I’d been playing young dancer types in musicals, Joel told me, ‘I know that you have the training and capacity to play another kind of role.’ He wants to grow the artist.”

Rehearsal scene: Wes Mouri (middle) as an upset Laertes being restrained by Maeve Moynihan (left) and Tinne Rosenmeier (right)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What Wes actually loves about theatre arts is that one doesn’t have to be stuck in a box. Being a theatre professional requires one to be a freelance artist. Besides acting, Wes also has experience in directing, marketing, stage managing and choreographing and knows that he will continually acquire new skills throughout his career.

Wes is very appreciative of theatre professionals, such as Joel Sass and Richard Cook, who willingly help artists break out of boxes through deliberate, inclusive casting choices. This process equalizes the chance for more humans to get a shot at roles and challenges norms to broaden the narratives. Park Square’s Hamlet, in fact, crosses both traditional gender and race lines in its casting.

Wes himself was not conscious that he could be limited by race until he was participating in a post-show discussion for Mu Performing Arts’ production of A Little Night Music in 2014.

“It was a big moment in my life,” Wes recalled. “I’d grown up in Rockford, Illinois, in a white-majority neighborhood. My dad is Japanese, but my mom is Caucasian. Both my parents are teachers. I attended a small private school, and everyone knew me as me, not as ‘the Asian kid.’

At the talk-back, a woman asked me what it was like to get to play the type of role that I would never have had a chance to play if Mu hadn’t produced the play. I had never considered that, and I just suddenly cried right on stage. I had never been boxed in as a dark-haired Asian. I’d always been surrounded by people saying I can absolutely do anything. Then I realized that the way I look could make it so I can’t do certain things.”

Wes Mouri as Laertes and Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet; Tinne Rosenmeier as an attendant in the background
(Photo by Amy Anderson)

Knowing this made the first day of rehearsals for Hamlet particularly meaningful. According to Wes, “We walked in and knew that this is a unique and different production. Not only is it a very streamlined version of a classic Shakespeare work for adults and children; but the cast is half male and half female, with major roles being played by women. There are also five people of color out of ten. The fact that diverse school groups will see this show is wonderful.”

In Hamlet, who Wes is and what he looks like do not stand in the way of who he can become on stage. He is the headstrong young Laertes, brother of the tragic Ophelia and son of the politically powerful Polonia. He is the right actor for the part because he is talented.

To Thine Own Self Be True

The above phrase is one of the most famous lines in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is a parent’s advice to only the son, not the daughter, Ophelia, who is played by Maeve Moynihan in Joel Sass’s new adaptation for Park Square Theatre. While some of the male characters have been changed to female in Joel’s version in order to, as he put it, “have more women walking the halls of Elsinore, expanding the notion of who carries power,” Ophelia does remain female and possess limited power in the face of social mores. With Park Square’s Hamlet set in modern times and presented to a contemporary audience, I wondered how Maeve perceived her character and planned to approach her role.

“Ophelia is a complex character, especially in relationship with the other characters,” Maeve reflected. “She’s often seen as being weak, but she’s not weak. She merely wants to please and do the right thing; she worries about the needs of others. The one kind of power that she has which the others lack–or isn’t as potent in them–is empathy. For Ophelia, she has a sense of caring that’s so strong that it cripples her. If you don’t look out for yourself, then you can lose sight of yourself. So Ophelia is misunderstood when we read the play.”

Maeve continued, “Ophelia does have a mind of her own and her own opinions, but she wants to make her mom Polonia proud. The other characters muddle up for her what’s right and wrong for herself, especially her mother, who asks her to spy on Hamlet. It’s not what she would do; but her mom, whom she loves, has asked her to do it.”

As Maeve sees it, Ophelia is very teen-like, a life stage when she’s trying to figure out who she is as an individual. She’s doing this in a court where her mother is of very high rank so Ophelia must always be concerned about how she reflects on her family.

Ophelia (center), played by Maeve Moynihan (Photo by Amy Anderson)

“Sometimes we find ourselves in situations when we’re not weak people or pushovers. We’re just trying to do the right thing given the circumstances,” Maeve said. “What would it be like to be the kid of the President, and you didn’t have a choice about being that?”

Maeve imagines that Ophelia wishes that she could tell everyone to just leave her alone. She doesn’t want her life, including her relationship with Hamlet, in the public eye at all times. During rehearsals, Maeve herself has wished that Ophelia could also tell Hamlet, “Quit being a jerk! It’s not my fault that your father died.”

The prospect of playing Ophelia was, indeed, intimidating for Maeve. The youthful Maeve could certainly relate to Ophelia, but she feared overthinking the role. Director Joel Sass got her to trust her instincts in exploring what he called the “inner violence” done to her. While Maeve had initially considered Ophelia’s descent into madness to be “a fragile unraveling,” she began to see its more explosive emotionality.

“Originally, I would have approached it as unfathomable sadness,” Maeve said. “But Ophelia is actually trying really hard to find her reality again. She realizes that she has a warped reality and something is off because of how people comment on her behavior. What’s frightening to her is not that she thinks something is wrong with herself but that others are treating her like that.

Cast members being directed by Joel Sass; Maeve is second from the left
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

We’ve seen her repressed throughout the play, and finally it’s the moment for her to unleash all the emotions she’d been wanting to let out. She’s no longer worried about how people see her. She lets her pent-up frustration and anger come out. We get to see the demons inside of her that needs expression.”

In rehearsals, Maeve worked hard on how best to unsettle the audience with sharp emotional shifts, true to Joel’s intention to take the audience “to interior psychological landscapes of the characters.” Sudden laughter may just as suddenly turn into crying.

For Maeve, a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Acting Program, the draw to becoming an actor was the chance to get into characters’ heads to be different people. She loves that, as a result, actors come to accept and understand people in new ways. She loves that she’s in a profession that builds empathy.

Nine years ago, some of you may have seen Maeve on the Guthrie stage as Carrie in Little House on the Prairie. That girl has since grown up and is now very excited to be on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage to play the multilayered Ophelia. In her own words, “It’s going to be awesome!”

Though She Be But Little, She is Fierce

In 2015, Kathryn Fumie had played Hamlet in Theatre Unbound’s production of Hamlet, which featured an all-women cast of eight. In contrast, Park Square’s Hamlet is a different adaptation by Joel Sass, featuring a mix-gendered cast of nine. Kathryn plays Hamlet’s trusted friend, Horatio.

“I’d just been pleased that they were thinking of gender-flipping some of the roles. I knew I had a good shot at being cast if more of the characters were female,” said Kathryn. “I can’t wait to be supportive of the role of Hamlet after having experienced the slings and arrows of previously playing him.”

With this Hamlet being set in a contemporary world of intrigue, conspiracy and surveillance, Director Joel Sass had instructed Kathryn in her audition to particularly note the state of tension and level of danger surrounding Hamlet. In such a world, the importance of words is heightened, especially as it pertains to Hamlet. So Horatio would really need to consider the wisdom of telling him about seeing the ghost of his father.

“Think about the insanity of the news! It would be dangerous if people overheard. She may be in trouble,” Kathryn pointed out.

Kathryn Fumie rehearsing as Horatio
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Considering how to play Horatio, Kathryn realized that the bond between Hamlet and Horatio “has to be really apparent and simple.” Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend, but one who understands his place in society; he’s also his only real confidante.

“When two people walk into a room, you can tell that they’re best friends. They’re comfortable with each other. Through a glance, you can tell that both are thinking the same thing at the same time,” Kathryn observed. “Hamlet will always be on the forefront of Horatio’s mind. That will inform how she moves and so on.”

“The main challenge in being in Hamlet will be the time limit,” Kathryn continued. “The play’s just over two hours long. The ferocity of the pace will affect its mood and high intensity. I’ll be juggling a lot of plates and running back and forth. It’ll be like a sporting match, fun but challenging.”

Since childhood, Kathryn has taken on the fun challenge of being an actor. She recalls how, as the youngest of three siblings, she was “so teeny” as a child but persistent in getting family members to watch her put on numerous plays by the bay window of their house.

Much later, Kathryn got her BFA in Performance through the Mason Gross School of Arts, the arts conservatory at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her training was akin to being in the rigorous University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theater undergraduate program. But Kathryn chose to attend Mason Gross mainly for offering the only American theatrical program that gives students the opportunity to train for an entire year at the world-renowned Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

While reflecting on her actor’s journey, Kathryn noted, “Despite the hustle and hundreds of auditions, it never felt like work. I always felt it was leading somewhere. People see you’re in a play but don’t realize the hard work it took to get there. I’m proud of my hard work.”

As with many artists, working hard for Kathryn has also included employment in numerous types of jobs, from salon work to waiting tables. She has also taught theatre arts to children. To Kathryn, all her real-life interactions with people through work experiences are simply an extension of her actor’s training.

First rehearsal meeting for Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Being an actor definitely requires great resilience to endure the ups, downs and in-betweens along the journey. Being female requires extra grit to deal with the additional challenges flung your way. But it is in the rehearsal room where Kathryn feels especially safe to not be judged by gender.

“Women, in general, are expected to be two people at all times. When they walk into a room, they have to worry about whether they are perceived as an adult or a woman. In rehearsals, I don’t have to be one or the other. In the rehearsal room, you’re just expected to do the work well. Everyone’s simply looking for you to do the work and shine.”

The capacity to shine is limitless for this bold woman who made her own lifelong dream of becoming an actor come true. But Kathryn also sees how being an actor “comes in handy in a lot of ways” and how her skills can be applied to other expertise. Her additional interests include politics and social studies. What may that portend for her future? Who knows. But for now, she has aptly landed in the intrigue-filled world of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Directing Hamlet

Joel Sass (in second row) directs Hamlet during a rehearsal. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Having adapted William Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square Theatre this season, Joel Sass takes further control of his vision by also directing it. But he’s no control freak. Yes, Joel has made significant changes to Hamlet. Yet this is still Shakespeare’s play, and he doesn’t lose sight of that. His directorship now lets him share the creative fun of re-imagining Hamlet with others. The result: we get to look at this well-known play from a fresh perspective.

With his director hat firmly on, Joel has held extensive discussions with his production team to conjure up the world that this Hamlet will inhabit. In his words, “The world of our Hamlet will seem modern–without being specific to any one decade or national boundary. Our Denmark is a state of mind versus an actual Scandinavian country.”

With an eye toward inclusivity to inhabit this contemporary world, Joel put together a dynamic ensemble of regional actors of mixed ages, races, genders and opinions. He also purposely shifted the gender of some traditionally male characters to female, hence shaking up conventional power dynamics.

Joel Sass and cast members Kory LaQuess Pullam and Wesley Mouri  look at Alice Fredrickson’s costume designs. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

In a note attached to the rehearsal script, Joel told the cast that they’d “explore our own reorganization of scenes and speeches in order to find a more cinematic ‘drive’ to the plot. So you will definitely find things missing, streamlined and in some cases transplanted. And I’m expecting that as we work together on it, we may find more things to lose, add or shift.” He also welcomed their “ideas about how to best make the language work.” Did all this imply that Joel would give the actors free reign to improvise?

“No,” Joel assured me. “You still need discipline in exploration, or you’ll get lost in your own improvisation.”

As the director, Joel’s responsibilities included identifying boundaries while maintaining the creative latitude for the ensemble’s exploration. For instance, in the big scene when Hamlet angrily confronts his mother Gertrude in her room, Joel had the two actors consider how they’d physically move and interact so the audience could understand how close they actually are as mother and son. Their physicality would be key to revealing a fuller backstory to their relationship that cannot otherwise be captured through the lines in the scene.

The shifts in gender, too, force the cast to examine how characters would interact in light of the changes. Polonius, the male chief advisor to the king in Shakespeare’s version, for example, is now the female Polonia in Joel’s adaptation; Bernardo, one of the first officers to have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father, is now Bernarda; Hamlet’s closest friend, Horatio, was also changed from male to female. What resulting tensions will charge the atmosphere of this play? What performance choices will make sense to enrich the storytelling?

While interviewing several of the actors in Park Square Theatre’s production of Hamlet, I found that, more often than not, they also shed light on the director’s role during auditions and rehearsals. Simply follow our blog to keep learning more!

Joel Sass, the Adapter of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

LONGEST HAMLET: Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play, with over 4000 lines, 20 scenes and 33 characters. Normally, it would take over four hours to perform.

FASTEST HAMLET: In 2008, a 15-minute version was performed by Austin Shakespeare in Texas. That production was called The World’s Fastest Hamlet; and after the show, the four-member cast then did a two-minute Hamlet, followed by a ten-second Hamlet.

PARK SQUARE’S HAMLET: This season, Park Square Theatre unveils a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Joel Sass, who is also its director and set designer. With a performance time of two hours 20 minutes, including intermission, and a cast of nine playing multiple roles, it will be performed for general public and student audiences.

Joel Sass has done several adaptations for the stage throughout his career, including William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Pericles for the California Shakespeare Theatre as well as Pericles for the Guthrie. In 2011, he’d adapted Neil Bartlett’s stage version of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist for Park Square Theatre, following up in 2016 with his adaptation of Dicken’s Great Expectations on our Proscenium Stage. Then he successfully pitched the idea to adapt a shorter version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square.

“I’ve gotten into the reflexive habit of exploring how to do big stories imaginatively and economically,” Joel said. “Hamlet at 4+ hours may be a great experience, but there are a lot of other ways to approach it by being more selective and creative on the story elements. I also wondered how I could manifest the world of Hamlet with less cast.”

The germ of Joel’s idea actually resulted from his conversation with former Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling who’d wanted to do Pericles but could only afford to hire nine actors. Having successfully explored that possibility for the Guthrie inspired Joel to consider a similar approach for Hamlet.

Joel Sass (second from right) in rehearsal with Hamlet cast members
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

“The process of adapting an existing Shakespeare play isn’t as complex as adapting a novel into a play. I already have the dialogue, and now I must decide what comes out and what to change,” Joel explained. “Hamlet is already a play that usually gets some cutting done. The play doesn’t have a definitive version either; there are three or four official versions with variations in plot, language and order of events. I feel that gives me implicit permission to continue to experiment. I needed to decide thematically and plot-wise what I wanted to do to retell the story.”

“I made some obvious cuts. For instance, I chose to lose the geopolitical element between Denmark and Norway, which is not necessary to the heart of the story. And I contemplated this one seriously but decided to take out Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I looked at how the plot flows and felt that the qualities of their relationship with Hamlet could be reiterated in exchanges with other characters. Take the richness implied in their friendship with Hamlet; that could be applied to Horatio.”

Knowing that the play would also be performed for student matinees where the audience may be studying Shakespeare’s longer version, I wondered if Joel had taken that into consideration for his adaptation.

“The value of students seeing theatre is not predicated on exact replication. Theatre is more organic of an experience and art tool than that. Using the tool of theatre is all about how stories are adapted or readapted. What meaning can you get from reinterpreted versions?” Joel pointed out. “The students will know the play enough to know what’s missing. The adaptation will make them more attentive to the material.”

Joel Sass with Kory LaQuess Pullam, who plays Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

With a smaller cast playing fewer characters and mixed-gender casting, Joel’s version of Hamlet will also bring an additional dimension for not just student groups, but all audiences, to ponder. What does it mean, for instance, to have the traditionally male Polonius character now be the female Polonia? According to Joel, audiences will get to explore anew characters that they may have thought they knew well.

“I’ve created a very intimate, more contemporary thriller in this adaptation,” said Joel. “I’ve emphasized the psychology of the characters and intensity of their circumstances, which can be more diffused or drawn out in a longer version. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a compelling, universal story that can withstand numerous ways of distilling events and language. We should want to see different versions of Hamlet.”

The Triple Threat

Joel Sass is the adapter, director and set designer for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

From October 13 to November 11, a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be performed at Park Square Theatre. Not only has Joel Sass adapted this famous tragedy for our Proscenium stage, but he is also its director and set designer. Who exactly IS this talented dynamo who has taken on these three demanding roles for a new production?

Joel Sass has been in the Twin Cities since 1990, working hard to offer AND build up his talents to become the highly respected theatre professional that he is now. His accomplishments are too many to list so here are just some examples: designing and directing on 15 award-winning productions at the acclaimed Jungle Theatre, being resident assistant director as well as designing and performing with the Tony Award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune and co-founding the award-winning Mary Worth Theatre Company. Joel has himself been a recipient of many awards, including a 2007 McKnight Theatre Artist Fellowship for sustained artistic excellence, 2006 IVEY for scenic design on Last of the Boys, 2009 IVEY for overall excellence on Mary’s Wedding and 2007 Alan Schneider Directing Award for national recognition as a freelance director from Theater Communications Group (TCG). Twin Cities theatre critics named him 2002 and 2008 Best Director and 2009 Best Scenic Designer in the Twin Cities. His theatre lab, Mary Worth, was deemed 2003 Best Independent Theatre Company, and the Jungle Theatre was named 2009 Best Large Theater under his interim leadership.

Joel remains a sought-after freelance artist; but as for most theatre professionals, Joel was not an overnight success. I asked him to reflect back on his long journey, particularly to inspire young dreamers, some of whom may be part of the student matinee audiences for Hamlet.

“I had been doing theatre for a long time without realizing it,” Joel said. “I grew up in a rural area without extracurricular activities. So I played in the woods or in the barn. What I was really doing was building stories. I was that bossy kid who organized everyone.”

Theatre was not on Joel’s mind upon entering college at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay (UWGB). He planned to pursue visual arts with the possibility of becoming an art teacher. However, he found the path to be too solitary in nature. He was a collaborator at heart. That’s when theatre tugged at him, and he considered becoming an actor.

“I was one of the lucky ones. Someone told me early on (his freshman year) that I wasn’t a good enough actor,” Joel recalled. “But he recommended that I should look into design or directing.”

That was exactly what he did. And with UWGB being a smaller college, Joel described his experience as “getting to do a lot in his four years” to prepare him for the outside world. Then after college from 1990 to 1993, Joel worked for Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which he described as his “graduate school.” It was like being in a rigorous, practical mentorship.

“But the best way to find your personal artistic voice and approach–there are few invitations for anyone to do that–is to start your own company,” Joel advised. “So I spent years making my own work.” In 1994, he became co-founder and artistic director of Mary Worth Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where he directed, designed and adapted over 14 new works and devised imaginative reinterpretations of classic plays.

“I advise anyone thinking of going to graduate school to first do your own thing for at least three years to see if you can get something going. Find and develop your artistic voice and approach. Then you’ll no longer replicate your teachers. Your voice and approach mature over time, too. Continue to learn. There’s never something that you don’t know.”

NOTE: Look out for future posts regarding each of Joel Sass’ roles for Hamlet.

Neighbors

“Meet Bob and Jennifer and their new neighbors, John and Pony, two suburban couples who have even more in common than their identical homes and their shared last names. As their relationships begin to irrevocably intertwine, the Joneses must decide between their idyllic fantasies and their imperfect realities.”

 — Park Square Theatre’s description of The Realistic Joneses

 

The cast of "The Realistic Joneses" with Director Joel Sass Photograph by Connie Shaver

The cast of “The Realistic Joneses” with Director Joel Sass
Photograph by Connie Shaver

 

You don’t get to choose your neighbors.  They just arrive.

Neighbors can be challenging. There were the ones who cut us no slack during our first sleep-deprived year of parenthood, calling the inspector whenever our lawn grew even a millimeter beyond city code. And the ones who were suspected of prostitution, though finally evicted for something else. As a child, I was afraid of the ghost, dubbed The White Lady, who supposedly haunted the building under construction next door.

Neighbors can hate you, like the ones in a suburb of Los Angeles who wanted my parents, siblings and I to “go back home,” meaning not in America and certainly not next door to them.

Neighbors can be kind. They took in the apartment caretaker’s cats when she died. They came with their snow blowers to help people trying to shovel out after big storms. One saved my sisters and I when we were youngsters being chased home by two men; that neighbor was a big dog named Fido.

Neighbors can be for keeps. Our current neighbors to our right have become honorary grandparents to our child, delighting in her friends who play on their lawn and kidnap their garden gnomes and providing a safe haven of unconditional love and acceptance. These are the neighbors who took the late night call for help to rush our dying greyhound to emergency care so that one parent could stay home with our then toddler.  They are the ones who good-humoredly let us light 80 candles on the cake–which almost melted before the song finished–when we celebrated “grandpa’s” birthday on their deck. These are the neighbors with whom we have a pact: We shall never move unless you do.

In The Realistic Joneses, playing on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Stage through this Sunday, Oct 16, Bob and Jennifer Jones don’t get to choose their new neighbors. John and Pony just arrive.  And as neighbors do, they touch each others’ lives in the most unexpected ways.  Find out how in this honest, touching and very funny area premiere of Will Enos’ comedy-drama.

Don’t miss it and be sure to bring your neighbors along.

Is Your Theater’s Commitment to Diversity Real, or Realistic? (Written by Eric “Pogi” Sumangil)

This post originally appeared on Eric “Pogi” Sumangil’s personal blog, wilyfilipino.wordpress.com. Sumangil plays John Jones in The Realistic Joneses, on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until October 16.

Tuyo is a fish dish in the Philippines. Also, Filipinos really like puns.

Tuyo is a fish dish in the Philippines. Also, Filipinos really like puns.

This may not look like much, but it actually means a lot to me. This is one of my costumes for The Realistic Joneses at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.

It started with a graphic t-shirt that the costume designer picked up at a thrift store. It was army green with a picture of a bicycle and some katakana writing underneath. But most of our set is also green, so the costume designer and director decided to look for a shirt in a different color. Something in a red or maroon. And, since they were already going to make a change, according to the costume designer, the director asked, “Can we make it a Filipino shirt?” The next day, the costume designer came into our dressing room with a few designs on a website pulled up on his laptop. They could have, just as easily, gone back to the thrift store and found the right color and size. They could have saved money instead of ordering a newly printed shirt online. But they made a choice, albeit a simple one, but a choice that acknowledges and honors my culture, and I’m grateful for that.

In my career I’ve played my fair share of Asian characters. And while I continue to believe in the importance of roles that are written by and for artists of Asian descent, I especially appreciate the rare opportunities when I get to play roles that make no mention of my race; roles that reinforce the notion that my face is an American face, that my experience is an American experience. As Asian American representation on stage and screen has been a topic of much discussion over the last few years, I feel strongly that it’s important to challenge audiences to see us in a strictly American context. Not foreign, or even foreign-born immigrants, but as Americans whose ethnicity has been on North American soil since 1587.

Good plays that have specific roles for Asian Americans, or Filipino Americans, are already pretty rare in the grand scheme of things. But here’s something even more rare: To have a director and costume designer make a choice to acknowledge your heritage even when it’s not called for in the script. There are plenty of plays out there that make no mention of race or ethnicity, but more often than not, people casting those shows make the easier (perhaps lazier) choice to cast white actors, furthering this notion that whiteness is “normal” and other ethnicities are varying deviations from the norm. When I’m onstage, my culture usually exists in a binary; it’s either essential to the story or completely nonexistent. So to know that my culture is not ignored in the world of this play is an example of a true commitment to diversity. Not only am I the first person of color to play John Jones in The Realistic Joneses (fact checkers, please advise!), but in our production the character is Filipino American, too.

Too often, well meaning people say things like, “I don’t see color,” or “I don’t see your race,” or “We’re all just humans…” and the only thing I can think is that if you’re not seeing my culture, you’re not seeing some essential things about my life and my experience. Also, I’d be less inclined to cook for you, so it’s you who’ll be missing out, not me.

Thank you to Director Joel Sass and Costume Designer Cole Bylander for their thoughtfulness, and to everyone at Park Square Theatre for their commitment to diversity onstage and backstage.

Dressing Up the Joneses

Photograph by Petronella J. Ytsma

Photograph by Petronella J. Ytsma

What is it like to go on a shopping spree with someone else’s money? Cole Bylander knows. Asked by Director Joel Sass to be the costume designer for The Realistic Joneses, currently on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Thrust Stage until October 16, Bylander did just that.

Typically, a costume designer does much research, makes sketches, then creates the garments for a production’s cast. But because The Realistic Joneses is set in modern times, Bylander was able to simply acquire ready-made clothing and accessories. He estimates shopping for three to five hours per character, imagining what would naturally be in the personal closets of Bob, Jennifer, John and Pony Jones.

During their fittings, the actors explored their characters through Bylander’s choices, free to accept or reject his picks depending on their own interpretations. The performers also helped to choose what they would wear for each scene. This costuming process allowed ideas to flow in an organic, collaborative way.

Why didn’t Bylander simply raid each actor’s home closets to build appropriate contemporary wardrobes? Not only would that be too much to ask of an actor, but you’d also run the risk of the actors looking too similar to themselves as opposed to the characters that they are creating.  An actor’s personal taste may also not match the character’s esthetics. For instance, Jane Froiland dresses in a less bohemian style than her character Pony Jones. However, a few of the actors’ own items are indeed worn on stage, such as Angela Timberman’s shoes and purse and Eric “Pogi” Sumangli’s pants. Actors are be paid a minimal rental fee for use of their personal possessions.

Any final costuming adjustments were made during the technical rehearsals, which was the first time when Bylander got to see all the play’s elements working together. Is that dress too short? Is that shirt’s color too much like that of the blanket? No major changes were needed for this play.

What happens to the Joneses’ wardrobe after the show? Unworn garments with tags still attached are returned to the stores for refunds, actors purchase some pieces and an assessment is made of what is stored away or donated to charities.

“I take it as a great compliment when an actor wants to keep what I’ve chosen,” said Bylander.

Bylander has shopped before for actors in film, but this was his first time to do such extensive shopping for a theatre production.

“It was a really successful approach for The Realistic Joneses because there are only four characters,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing it with a cast of 20.”

Shop till you drop? No, more like intensely mindful shopping, followed by intensely mindful fittings, all for a rich payoff for an intensely characters-driven show. After all the hard work on The Realistic Joneses, what’s next on Bylander’s To Do List? A much-needed vacation.

Costume Designer Cole Bylander

Costume Designer Cole Bylander

To learn more about the many talents of Cole Bylander, visit his website: www.colebylander.com

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